Interview with Donald Robertson

Interview with Donald Robertson, one of the founding members of Modern Stoicism, about his work on the team, organizing the Stoicon and Stoicon-x Toronto events, running the Stoic Week and SMRT courses, and developing SABS.

Donald Robertson hardly needs any introduction – but I’ll give him one here anyway!  He was one of the founding members of the Modern Stoicism team and project, long before it became formally structured as an organization.  He has made a number of important contributions to modern interpretation and application of classic Stoic philosophy, authoring several highly popular books, creating the Stoic Week meditation mp3 sound files, collaborating on the Stoic Week handbook , hosting the yearly Stoic Week and Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training online classes, writing hundreds of blog posts, providing talks and workshops. . . .

On top of all of that, Donald started and moderates the Facebook Stoicism group – which now has nearly 25,000 members – and took on the task of organizing this years’ Stoicon and Stoicon-x conferences in Toronto.  He has been interviewing the other speakers who will be giving talks and workshops at STOICON, and it is about time that our readers got to hear from Donald himself in that series of interviews.  So, here it is!

Q: Donald, do you want to begin by saying a bit about yourself and your involvement with Stoicism?

Thanks.  Well, I studied philosophy at Aberdeen University a long time ago, then did a masters in philosophy and psychotherapy at Sheffield University’s Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies before training as a counsellor and psychotherapist and becoming a supervisor and trainer of other therapists.  I went on to write several books about psychotherapy, self-help, and philosophy.  My special area of interest is Stoicism and its relation to cognitive-behavioural therapy, and also to modern evidence-based self-help approaches.  

After leaving university, back in 1996, I discovered the Stoics and gradually began writing articles on Stoicism and giving talks about it at conferences.  Stoicism was a big revelation to me, and I found it invaluable in my work with clients as a cognitive therapist.  Then in 2005, I wrote an article on Stoicism and psychotherapy for one of the main British counselling journals.  I was then invited to write a book called The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, which surveys all the psychological techniques found in Stoicism and compares them to similar ones found in modern cognitive therapy.  A lot of people asked me for a self-help guide to Stoicism in plain English, so I then wrote two books about Stoicism for Hodder’s Teach Yourself series: Build Your Resilience and Stoicism and the Art of Happiness.  

I’m a “techniques guy” in therapy – I specialise in cognitive and behavioural skills training.  Stoicism appeals to me because it contains an astounding armamentarium of psychological techniques, which are similar to those proven to be effective by research on modern cognitive therapy.  However, Stoicism is not merely a therapy, it’s something much more than that, a whole philosophy.

Q: What are you working on now?

For the past five years or so, I’ve been involved with the Modern Stoicism project.  I design and deliver the online courses called Stoic Week and Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) and I’m also organizing the main Stoicon 2017 conference in Toronto, and also Stoicon-x Toronto.  At the moment, I’m doing research for a new book on Marcus Aurelius and his use of Stoicism, and I design my own online courses on Stoicism as well.  We also just announced the free Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2017 online course, last night, and hundreds of people have already enrolled in advance.  (People should enrol now if they want to take part but the course officially begins on 16th July 2017.) 

Q: What is Modern Stoicism?

Modern Stoicism is a non-profit and philanthropic project that’s run by a multidisciplinary team of academic philosophers and classicists, and psychologists and cognitive therapists.  It includes some well-known authors in the field of Stoicism, including Professor Christopher Gill, of Exeter University, who founded the project along with his PhD student, Patrick Ussher.  I was one of the original members of the team and I’ve been involved ever since it started.  

Our main activities are published on this modernstoicism.com website and through social media, such as our @stoicweek Twitter account.  We run the Stoicon conference and Stoicon-x spin-off event each year.  We also run the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) online course.  However, our main activities are probably the Stoicism Today blog (run by Greg Sadler) and the Stoic Week online course, which I run with help from other members of the team.  

We also gather data on the effects of Stoic psychological training, using various outcome measures, and we publish the (anonymous) results as online reports.  We’ve been lucky enough to have our work covered throughout the media, including all of the British broadsheet newspapers, BBC radio, Forbes magazine, and many other newspapers and magazines around the world.

One thing I want to stress about Modern Stoicism is that it’s in no way separate from traditional or ancient Stoicism.  It’s intended to be inclusive so we welcome everyone who’s interested in Stoicism, whatever their background or orientation.  That includes religious Stoics, as well as atheistic or agnostic Stoics, or even people who know nothing about Stoicism and are just curious.  Basically, if you’re interested in Stoicism and didn’t die more than four hundred years ago then you’re a “Modern Stoic.”

Q: What is Stoicon?

Stoicon is an international conference on applying Stoicism to modern life, which we run each year, around October or November.  It was originally held in London, but now moves around different locations.  Last year it was held in New York City, and this year it’s going to be in Toronto, in Canada.  We have some of the leading authors in the field of Stoicism lined up to speak this year, and the theme is “Stoicism at Work”.  We also have a variety of parallel workshops and talks, which delegates can choose between.  I think it’s fair to say it’s really the main conference-type event on Stoicism that you can attend in person.  We’re expecting around 400 people to attend this year from all around the world.  Our keynote speaker, Professor Margaret Graver is a well-known academic and an expert on Stoicism and emotion so we’re all really looking forward to hearing her speak.

Q: What is Stoicon-x?

Stoicon-x events are held in different parts of the world.  They’re an opportunity for people to attend face-to-face in their own areas, as part of Stoic Week.  We have put together a set of helpful guidelines for anyone who would like to organize a Stoicon-x event.  We’re even holding one in Toronto this year, the day after the main Stoicon conference.  So if you’re really into Stoicism you can have a whole weekend of talks and workshops in Canada this year!  

One of the things we’re introducing this year is the idea of lightning talks.  These are brief 5-10 minute talks, where the speakers introduce themselves, with no gap in-between.  This allows us to give everyone an opportunity to speak, and to test out new speakers for future conferences.  We’re particularly interested in encouraging bloggers and those involved in other online Stoicism communities to step forward and speak to our audience because we want to be as inclusive as possible with regard to all the people who are around today and involved with Stoicism.

Q: What is Stoic Week?

Stoic Week is seven days during which we promote Stoicism internationally to a massive audience, free of charge.  We do that mainly through our online Stoic Week course, which attracted 3,400 participants from around the world last year.  As part of the whole event, we also run Stoicon and the Stoicon-x conferences around the same time of year.  So for a week, or two, there’s a lot of stuff about Stoicism going on.  The Stoic Week course is the perfect opportunity for you to get a flavour of what Stoic psychological practices are like.  

Some people have said it’s silly to think that you can be a Stoic for just seven days – Stoicism is for life not just for Christmas!  Of course, that’s not at all what we’re saying.  This is just a rapid introduction to Stoicism.  It gives people an opportunity to try out some Stoic psychological exercises and get a flavour of them, before deciding if they want to study Stoic philosophy more deeply.  We begin by recommending that people who are interested should read the ancient Stoics themselves, of course, but Stoic Week is a great practical introduction.  If you’ve read the books, or not, and you’re looking for something practical to try, Stoic Week is the obvious choice.

Q: What is Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT)?

Stoic Week is more about public engagement.  It’s an easy introduction to living like a Stoic.  We can gather some data from it but to really gather more meaningful data we needed a longer course, which is much more specifically focused on a handful of core skills.  That’s why we designed Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training, and thousands of people have now also completed that training online.  Our data show that, as we anticipated, when you do more Stoicism you get better outcomes.  So improvements on outcome measures of mood and wellbeing were roughly doubly for participants in this longer course than they were for Stoic Week.  If you’re serious about Stoicism and want to really train yourself in core skills then SMRT is your opportunity to do that with support from our team of experts and hundreds of other participants around the world.  (SMRT 2017 is currently enrolling and begins on Sunday 16th July 2017.)

Q: What is SABS?

We developed our own questionnaire called the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS), which allows us to do some pretty detailed statistical analysis on Stoicism and its benefits, when used alongside established measures of mood and wellbeing, of the sort commonly used in research on cognitive therapy and positive psychology.  Tim LeBon is responsible for administering the scales and reporting each year on the data we’ve collected.  As mentioned above, we’ve consistently found Stoicism has measurable benefits, although we’ve yet to carry out a proper randomized controlled trial on the skills training protocols we’ve developed.

Q: What is Stoicism Today?

Stoicism Today is our blog.  It’s without question the main resource for anyone looking for online articles on Stoicism, in my humble opinion.  That’s because anyone can submit posts there, and they do.  Again, it’s all about public engagement and being inclusive.  We encourage everyone with an interest in Stoicism to submit articles and we have an absolutely superb collection of writings from people who approach Stoicism from all walks of life.  Anyone can submit an article to Greg Sadler, the editor, for consideration, and at the time of writing, I think there are nearly 500 posts on that website.  So happy reading!

 

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

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